Student held by North Korea dies week after being released in coma
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Student held by North Korea dies week after being released in coma

Otto Warmbier, who was active in university Hillel before being jailed by Pyongyang, was returned last week with severe brain damage

American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016. (AP/Jon Chol Jin)
American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016. (AP/Jon Chol Jin)

CINCINNATI — Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was released by North Korea in a coma last week, died Monday afternoon. He was 22.

His family announced his death in a statement released by UC Health Systems, saying, “It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home. Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 p.m.”

The family thanked the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for treating him, but said, “Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”

They said they were choosing to focus on the time they were given with their “warm, engaging, brilliant” son instead of focusing on what they had lost.

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor in North Korea, convicted of subversion after he tearfully confessed he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.

The University of Virginia student was held for more than 17 months and medically evacuated from North Korea last week. Doctors said he returned with severe brain damage, but it wasn’t clear what caused it.

In their statement Monday, Otto’s family said they believed he had found a peace of sorts after being flown home.

“When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished,” they said.

“Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed – he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that,” they added.

“We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers. We are at peace and at home too.”

Warmbier had been active in the campus Hillel at the University of Virginia and had visited Israel on a Birthright trip, according to Rabbi Jake Rubin, who headed the Hillel there.

Birthright offers free trips to individuals who identify as Jewish, have at least one Jewish birth parent, or have completed Jewish conversion. Rubin did not answer a question about Warmbier’s Jewish background.

The rabbi described Warmbier as “a beloved member of our Hillel community.”

Otto Warmbier confessing to stealing a political poster in North Korea, Feb. 29, 2016. (Screenshot from YouTube)
Otto Warmbier confessing to stealing a political poster in North Korea, February 29, 2016. (Screenshot from YouTube)

“He was a regular at Bagels on Lawn, celebrated Shabbat and holidays at Hillel, and even led a seder for other students that focused on issues of environmentalism and sustainability,” Rubin wrote.

Parents Fred and Cindy Warmbier told The Associated Press in a statement on the day of their son’s release that they wanted “the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime” and expressed relief he had been returned to “finally be with people who love him.”

He was taken by Medivac to Cincinnati, where he grew up in a nearby suburb, Wyoming. He was salutatorian of his 2013 class at the highly rated high school there, and he was on the soccer team, among other activities.

Ohio’s US senators sharply criticized North Korea soon after his release.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman of the Cincinnati area said North Korea should be “universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior.” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Cleveland said the country’s “despicable actions … must be condemned.” Portman added that the Warmbiers have “had to endure more than any family should have to bear.”

Three Americans remain held in North Korea. The US government accuses North Korea of using such detainees as political pawns. North Korea accuses Washington and South Korea of sending spies to overthrow its government.

At the time of Warmbier’s release, a White House official said Joseph Yun, the US envoy on North Korea, had met with North Korean foreign ministry representatives in Norway the previous month. Such direct consultations between the two governments are rare because they don’t have formal diplomatic relations.

At the meeting, North Korea agreed that Swedish diplomats could visit all four American detainees. Yun learned about Warmbier’s condition in a meeting a week before the release from the North Korean ambassador at the UN in New York. Yun then dispatched to North Korea and visited Warmbier June 12 with two doctors and demanded his release on humanitarian grounds.

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